Archive for March, 2014

Rare Roman intaglio bracelet to go on display

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014


On July 26th, 2012, a metal detectorist found a Roman bracelet near Dalton, Cumbria, northwestern England. It was broken in two pieces: a twisted tube made out of spiralled silver wire and a hinged round bezel with a red gemstone intaglio of Jupiter. Dating to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., this bracelet is a very rare artifact, especially so for the Furness area because no Roman structures have ever been found there. Plenty of Roman coins have been, but not high-end jewelry like this piece. The artifact thus testifies to the wide range of Roman trade reaching the ends of the empire, or it may point to a settlement that hasn’t been unearthed yet.

The finder reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme liaison and the subsequent coroner’s inquest declare it official treasure trove. Since then, the bracelet has been at the British Museum where experts were studying it and assessing its market value so a local museum, in this case the Dock Museum in Furness, could acquire it. The price was modest compared to some of the major treasure finds — just £1,800 ($3,000) — but small local museums don’t have acquisition budgets so they had to raise the funds.

Thanks to a donation from the Furness Maritime Trust, the Dock Museum is now the proud owner of this beautiful and rare piece of jewelry. It will go on display on March 14th in the museum’s new archaeology gallery. There will be associated workshops at the end of the month that schools have been invited to, and on Saturday, April 12th, a free Roman-themed family fun day.

It’s only fair that such a handsome piece of jewelry would inspire all kinds of new exhibitions and events at the museum. I think the striking spiral wire design with filigree terminals is reminiscent of a torc while the intaglio is a Greco-Roman classic. That’s not to say this was a hybrid of British and Roman workmanship. The thick spiral-twisted wire band with elaborate terminals and an engraved gemstone set in hinged bezel center is a design that has been found far, far away from Britannia. A similar silver hinged bracelet was found in Slovenia. Gold examples have been found in Syria and Egypt. This was an import, and an expensive one at that.

From the curator’s report for the treasure inquest:

The distorted elliptical hoop comprises a fine and evenly-twisted, tightly-spiralled tube made from circular-sectioned silver wire. Quite heavy wear is visible on both sides of the hoop. What appears to be the central core, around which the wire was spiralled, is visible under magnification in those places where distortion has slightly ‘opened’ the twisted strands, but its composition is uncertain. Each terminal is enclosed in a tubular collar which is decorated with an applied central meander filigree wire flanked by a double-ring edge-moulding. […]

The large circular bezel, a hollow box construction of silver sheet, has a plain back and sides. Its ornate upper face comprises an outer basal zone of herringbone pattern, formed from three concentric circles of twisted wire, and a central raised open dome with ribbed side and stepped, apparently rubbed-over, setting. The oval gem, seemingly of translucent orange-red colour, has dropped out of position to the base of the box-setting, presumably as a result of the deterioration and loss of an original organic packing. Engraved into its lightly convex surface is the image of a seated Jupiter, with wreath and full-length drapery, holding a sceptre in his left hand. In his extended right hand he holds a patera above a stylised flaming altar.

Whoever owned this bracelet had to be very wealthy. Dock Museum curator Sabine Skae speculates that it belonged to a wealthy Furness woman, native rather than Roman, who could afford the best and wanted to show it off.

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British Library acquires Revenge of Jesus play

Monday, March 10th, 2014

The British Library has acquired an exquisite illuminated manuscript of Mystère de la Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur Ihesu Crist (Mystery of the Vengeance of Our Lord Jesus Christ), a mystery play written by Benedictine monk Eustache Marcadé (d. 1440) some time before 1414 that was enormously popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. It tells a highly fictionalized story of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. as Jesus’ revenge for his crucifixion. It is 14,972 verses long and was performed over the course of four days in elaborate productions that included special effects like flying angels and a leprous Vespasian miraculously healed on stage.

Only two copies of the play are known to have survived and this one is the only complete one. The other copy, now in the Municipal Library of Arras, is 1020 verses shorter, an abridged version that took only three days to stage. The Arras copy is also illustrated with pen and ink drawings, while the British Library’s edition is illustrated with 20 miniatures painted in rich color and vibrant detail by Flanders master Loyse Liédet.

Commissioned by Philip the Good (1396-1467), Duke of Burgundy, Count of Flanders, Artois and Franche-Comté, around 1465, the book is thought to be a record of an actual performance of the Mystère de la Vengeance that was staged in Abbeville in 1483. Abbeville had recently become part of Philip the Good’s territory and it’s very likely that he was in the audience. Wanting a top quality copy of the play, the duke commissioned Liédet to do the art and scribe Yvonnet le Jeune to write out the text in beautiful calligraphy (get a load of the A in Amen). Liédet’s illuminations are thought to be accurate depictions of the play as performed, an important document of medieval theatrical productions from the 15th century.

Thanks to the ducal library’s extensive record-keeping, we know exactly who was paid how much for which work and how much the materials cost (see this excellent British Library blog entry for details). The total expenditure was an exorbitant 51 pounds and 19 shillings. For comparison, a panel triptych of the Last Supper commissioned in 1464 cost £33 6s. 8d. and Philip’s Master of the Cannon made six pounds a year. This was a luxury edition and then some.

After the death of Philip the Good, it remained in the Burgundian ducal collection until the 17th century when it was acquired by the Marquis de La Vieuville. In the 18th century it was split into two volumes and rebound, but despite the alteration the condition was and is pristine. The book made its way to England in the late 18th century, becoming part of the collection of John Ker, Duke of Roxburghe, whose library was considered the greatest of his age. In the famous 1812 sale of the Roxburghe estate, it was third most expensive lot, purchased by William George Spencer Cavendish (1790-1858), the sixth Duke of Devonshire.

It remained in the library at Chatsworth, seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, for two hundred years. On December 5th, 2012, the Mystère de la Vengeance was put up for auction at Sotheby’s, but the high bid of £3.9 million just failed to meet the reserve of £4 million ($6,442,400) so it didn’t sell.

Thankfully, they decided not to sell it at auction again. Instead it was acquired by the government under the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) Scheme, a program that allows important works of cultural patrimony to be transferred to the state in lieu of inheritance tax. When the market value of the object surpasses the amount of the tax, the owner is paid the difference which is what happened here. The British Library raised the undisclosed amount with grants and donations.

Both volumes of the play have already been digitized and uploaded to the British Library’s outstanding digital manuscripts site: volume one, volume two. To leaf through the book, click on the bindings image and arrow through. It’s very much worth it to zoom in on the illuminations. They are gorgeous and in a very unique style.

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Chinese music book survives Napoleonic naval battle

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

An 18th century book of musical scores with a dashingly Hornblower-like history has been identified as an extremely rare, probably unique, survival of early Chinese music. The book has been in St John’s College library at Cambridge University for 210 years. It was known to be there, but none of the resident scholars knew much about it beyond it being an “odd little book.” A colleague suggested visiting Chinese scholar Dr. Jian Yiang check out the slender volume and he immediately recognized it as a rare collection of musical scores written in Gongche notation. When he consulted with other experts, they confirmed that they had never seen this particular title before which means it may well be one of a kind.

The book itself is entitled Xian Di Pipa Pu, which means the musical score for Chinese flute and “pipa” (a Chinese lute). It contains a condensed introduction to three instruments – “Xiao” (a type of recorder), “Di” (Chinese flute) and “Sanxian” (the three-stringed Chinese lute). This is followed by 13 pieces of music in the traditional Gongche notation.

It is particularly valuable because attempts to understand China’s musical heritage have been thwarted by a lack of reliable historical documents. Zhiwu Wu, Professor of Chinese Music at Xinghai Conservatory in Guangzhou, who has analysed Yang’s find, said: “The discovery of this rare volume of pre-modern Chinese musical notation might contribute a great deal to current research and performance of Chinese traditional music and some of the pieces included might be the earliest and only source available.”

Xian Di Pipa Pu came very close to destruction before scholars got the chance to learn from it. The book was acquired by the Reverend James Inman, mathematician, astronomer and an alumnus of St John’s College, Cambridge, when he was in Whampoa in Canton (today Guangzhou), China, in December of 1803. The next month he was on his way back to England, sailing on the East India ship Warley, a 1,475-ton merchant ship that was part of the British China Fleet.

The East Indiamen, as these ships were known, were large and heavy and could carry up to 36 guns so they were strong enough to fend off privateers and from a distance could be confused for small ships of the line, but they were not military vessels. The fleet that set sail with Inman in January of 1804 carried passengers and an immensely valuable cargo: tea, silk and porcelain that today would be worth more than a billion dollars. They had no military escort, just a single East India Company brig, however, and the convey was a highly desirable target. With the uneasy peace between France and Britain about to be broken in May of 1803, Napoleon had dispatched a squadron of warships under the command of Contre-Admiral Charles-Alexandre Durand Linois to India with the explicit purpose of interrupting the East India trade, a load-bearing wall of the British economy. Intercepting so rich a fleet would be a major coup.

Linois’ spies had reported to him when the British China Fleet sailed and his ships had been patrolling the area for a month looking for it. On February 14th, 1804, the French and British came face to face in front of the island of Pulo Aura near the Straits of Malacca off the Malaysian coast. Because Linois had heard from his spies that the fleet would have military escorts (false information that may have been deliberately planted by the British), he was cautious and did not attack right away.

Commodore Nathaniel Dance, commander of the British fleet, decided not to flee but to attempt to stare Linois down. On February 15th, Dance order the brig Ganges and the four biggest East Indiamen to line up in battle formation and fly the blue ensigns of the Royal Navy. He was hoping to trick Linois into thinking the large merchant vessels were small warships, armed to the teeth and more than capable of defending the smaller merchant vessels against Linois’ one ship of the line and three frigates.

The ruse worked. Linois held back, unwilling to engage in battle until he was sure of what he was dealing with. Dance used the delay to return the fleet to sailing formation and make for the straits, but Linois’ warships were faster and began to nip at the heels of the slower, smaller merchant ships. Dance again made a daring choice, bringing the five lead ships about to face the French. Linois finally attacked, firing on the lead ship the Royal George. The other four, including the Warley, returned fire. In the confusion of the encounter, one of the other British ships crashed into the Warley leaving the two ships’ riggings entangled.

After an exchange of fire lasting less than an hour, Linois turned the French squadron around and fled. Dance, who obviously suffered no deficit of commitment, actually chased the French for two hours to make sure they didn’t turn around and attack them again. Then he reassembled the convoy that had gotten a little stretched thin and together they made their way to safety in the Straits of Malacca. They stayed anchored there for a couple of weeks until Royal Navy ships of the line arrived to escort them the rest of the way home.

Inman, acquitted himself admirably in this skirmish, commanding a team of Indian Lascar seamen armed with pikes. Once he was safe and sound in England, he returned to St John’s where in 1805 he got his MA and became a fellow of the College. The “odd little book” that with its owner had survived an encounter with the business end of French ships of the line and getting tangled in the rigging of a friendly ship, was donated to the College along with the rest of Inman’s collection of Chinese books.

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First human remains from ancient Marcavalle culture found in Cuzco

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Archaeologists from the Decentralized Department of Culture of Cuzco, Peru, have unearthed the first human remains ever discovered from the pre-Incan Marcavalle culture which flourished in the area around 1000 B.C., the first known human settlement in the Cuzco Valley. Digging on the grounds of the Juvenile Rehabilitation Center of Marcavalle 20 minutes south of downtown Cuzco by agreement with the Superior Court of Justice, excavators found three burial areas containing the skeletal remains of five people. Two adults were buried together in one grave along an east-west axis. Adjacent to them was the grave of an infant. Nearby two adolescents were buried with their lower legs bent and placed side by side.

Interred along with the human remains were artifacts characteristic of Marcavalle culture. The people were buried wearing bead necklaces around their necks and arms. Excavators also found decorative pottery in animal and human shapes. Iridescent paint was used on some of the pottery, a material typical of Marcavalle ceramic. There were a number of projectile points made out of stone and obsidian, charms and tools — mortars, chisels, awls, drills — made of stone and bone. Unworked bones of camelids, deer and guinea pigs butchered for food were unearthed in the funerary context as well.

Researchers found another first in another trench: a semicircular wall. The sandstone and clay mortar wall is the first architectural evidence ever discovered from the Marcavalle culture. It’s not clear what structure the wall was a part of, but archaeologists found ashes which may have been left behind from religious or cultural activity of some kind.

This is a find of major importance because it geometrically expands our understanding of Marcavalle culture. Very little is known about it. They were identified from artifacts — potsherds, stone, mainly obsidian, projectile points, worked bone and bones from stock animals — first found in 1953 in the town of Marcavalle, two and a half miles southeast of Cuzco. Geometric decoration on the pottery painted with a red slip over a painted cream-color background was the most common style found on Marcavalle potsherds, a style also found in the most recent excavation. From the little we do know, the Marcavalle peoples were primarily farmers who lived in relatively densely populated villages in the Cuzco Valley.

Ricardo Ruiz Caro, head of the Decentralized Department of Culture of Cuzco, emphasizes the significance of the find: “These are the first funerary contexts found intact in 50 years of studies and research on the Formative period that will allow us to reinterpret the process of cultural evolution in the Cuzco Valley.”

Excavations in the Juvenile Center will continue through this years. Researchers have to secure more than $350,000 to fund further archaeological explorations that may illuminate this obscure period in ancient Peruvian history. Meanwhile, all the artifacts are being conserved and recorded for later analysis from experts in a variety of relevant specialties.

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Egyptian in Roman army writes mournful letter home

Friday, March 7th, 2014

A letter written on papyrus 1800 years ago by an Egyptian soldier serving in the Roman army has just been fully deciphered by Rice University doctoral candidate Grant Adamson.

The papyrus is one of more than 30,000 discovered in the Egyptian city of Tebtunis 90 miles southwest of Cairo during an 1899-1900 archaeological expedition led by British papyrologists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt. They were the first to excavate Tebtunis and they hit papyrus paydirt almost immediately. The dig began December 3rd, 1899, and within a month they had already unearthed hundreds of papyri in the ancient town and in the main temple complex. In January of 1900, they found another two rich papyrology veins in the city necropolis. One was a group of more than fifty human mummies encased in cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like material that used recycled papyri. The other was a group of more than 1,000 mummified crocodiles, 31 of which were wrapped in recycled papyrus.

We know this because they unwrapped the mummies shortly after excavation just to get to the papyri, a conservation nightmare to modern sensibilities. For comparison, here are two mummified crocodiles unearthed by Grenfell and Hunt at Tebtunis. The first is still wrapped in its original reed, textile and painted cartonnage face mask. The second was unwrapped on site.


The papyri found in the temple complex were the most recent, written when Egypt was under Roman rule in the first three centuries of the first millennium. Almost all of them were written in Greek with a few written in Demotic. The temple was dedicated to the crocodile god Soknebtunis (a local the name for the god that translates to “Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis”) and the priests lived in houses in the temple complex. Many papyri were discovered in those priestly homes, a vast collection of documents ranging from tax receipts to apprenticeship contracts, petitions to minutes of priest meetings, loans to private correspondence.

Grenfell and Hunt published the Soknebtunis papyri in Volume II of their three-volume work The Tebtunis Papyri, but many of the translations were incomplete. For document 583, only a short summary was published. That letter is now in the papyrus collection of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, which is where Grant Adamson studied in seeking to finish the job Grenfell and Hunt started more than a century ago. He had the benefit of new technology to help him make sense of the faded and fragmented writing: infrared imaging which makes illegible text visible.

The letter was written by one Aurelius Polion, soldier of the legio II Adiutrix stationed in Pannonia Inferior, around present-day Hungary, in the third century A.D. and is forlorn in tone.

Addressed to his mother (a bread seller), sister and brother, part of it reads: “I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind,” it reads.

“I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you …” (Part of the letter hasn’t survived.)

Polion says he has written six letters to his family without response, suggesting some sort of family tensions.

“While away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger,” he writes. “I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother …”

We don’t know if that stinging rebuke reached its intended recipients, but it seems likely since we know it found its way to Egypt and to the temple of Soknebtunis. It seems Polion entrusted the letter to a former Roman soldier rather than the Roman military postal system. The verso of the letter gives hand delivery instructions to someone whose name may have been (the fragmentary papyrus makes it unclear) Acutius Leon.

For more information about the Tebtunis papyri, including translations of featured pieces and a searchable database of the papyrus collection, see the website of The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri.

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Decapitated Vikings were noob raiders, in bad shape

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

The remains of around 50 decapitated Vikings unearthed in 2009 during the construction of the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset on the southern coast of England were not the elite fighting force sung about in the sagas. They weren’t even garden variety Viking raiders. Researchers have found no evidence of previous fighting injuries which means if they were in England to raid, they were novices at it.

The early forensic examination of the remains pointed to this being a Viking raiding party who met a grisly end at Anglo-Saxon hands. The skeletons were all male, seemingly in good physical condition. Stable isotope analysis of their teeth confirmed their Scandinavian origin. They all spent their early childhoods in the Arctic and sub-Arctic areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Russia. The bodies were on one side of the pit while the heads were stacked on the other side. Defensive wounds were found on hands and arms, but the fatal wounds were on the necks, skulls and shoulders. These were not clean decapitations. The heads were cut off in several sword blows from the front. There were no artifacts interred with them, not even any clothes, suggesting they were stripped before or after death.

Further osteological analysis found that the skeletons dated to 970-1025 A.D during the reign of Æthelred the Unready or Cnut the Great. Almost all of the men were between 18 and 25 years old. There were outliers, though: one youth in his early or mid teens, and one senior who was over 50 years old at the time of death. Several of the men had filed teeth, a Scandinavian practice of unknown symbolism that may have been an indicator of social status, specific occupation or a way to make the battle grimace scarier by filling in the dental grooves with paint.

It was the physical condition of many of the remains that exploded the early theory that they might have been the mighty mercenary Jomsvikings or imitators thereof. The remains testified to a number of chronic illnesses and injuries that would have been seriously debilitating. One man’s thigh bone has two deep holes in it from the chronic bone infection osteomyelitis. Louise Loe of Oxford Archaeology describes it deliciously grossly:

“The bone was twice the size of a normal thigh bone and had openings which would have oozed smelly pus during his life. The leg would have been swollen and painful. It must have posed a considerable disability to the individual, and consequently the rest of the group.”

Another raider had a healed fracture to his right femur that left his right leg significantly shorter than his left. A kidney or bladder stone was found among the skeletal remains. Some of the men had what researchers think is brucellosis, an infectious disease transmitted from unpasteurized milk or other close contact with the secretions of infected animals. It causes joint and muscular pain and at its worst, can result in arthritis, meningitis and neurological disorders.

Some of these remains, including the suppurating thigh bone, are now on display at the British Museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition. Although the British Museum was already well into the planning of the show when the Weymouth pit was discovered, they immediately moved things around so there would be room in the display for the decapitated raiders. The exhibition runs from March 6th to June 22nd and will include among its many treasures the first public display of the entire Vale of York Hoard.

In September, the Dorset skeletons will travel to the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin. In January of 2015 they will return to England where they will find a permanent home in the new Ancient Dorset gallery of the Dorset County Museum. There they will be displayed in their original positions in a reconstructed version of the burial pit.

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First Wolverine artwork exists & it’s up for auction

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

The now-iconic mutant Wolverine made his first appearance on the last panel of The Incredible Hulk #180 in October of 1974. Designed by Marvel art director John Romita, Sr, and penciled by artist Herb Trimpe, the Wolverine debuted in “And the Wind Howls Wendigo,” a story by Len Wein in which Hulk wanders the wilds of Quebec only to become ensnared in an adventure with Wendigo. The Hulk draws the attention of the Canadian military who deploy Weapon X to intercept him. Wolverine is said weapon, “a living, raging powerhouse who’s bound to knock [Hulk] back on [his] emerald posterior.”

He only appears once in the final panel as a teaser for the The Incredible Hulk #181 which debuted in November, 1974, with Hulk and Wolverine fighting on the cover. Wolverine closed out the Wendigo story line in issue #182 and didn’t appear in print again until Giant-Size X-Men #1, published May 1975. When the old X-Men title was revived a few months later, Wolverine was part of the crew. He wasn’t immediately popular, but by 1982 he had enough of an audience to garner a solo title.

The next year, a teenaged fan met Herb Trimpe, who would remain a Marvel quota artist until the company went bankrupt in the mid-1990s, and Trimpe gifted him a piece of signed artwork. It was that last page of The Incredible Hulk #180 with the Wolverine challenging Hulk and Wendigo to tangle with him. The young man quietly kept the page for decades. Because he was not a collector, nobody in the comics community had any idea the page still existed, never mind where it might be.

Now that young man is all grown up and has decided to sell the prized possession Herb Trimpe gave him 31 years ago. The original artwork of Wolverine’s first appearance will go up for auction at Heritage Auction on May 16th.

In 1983, on the afternoon that Trimpe handed over the piece of original art to the then-teenaged consignor of the piece as a souvenir of their visit that afternoon, neither had any idea that the ink, graphite and blue pencil drawing would turn out to be one of the most influential comic book images ever created. As the decades drew on, and Wolverine soared in popularity and influence in Pop Culture, it because obvious to the owner of the art that he had something of significant value and importance.

Inspired by Trimpe’s generosity to him more than 30 years ago, the consignor has specified that the majority of the after-tax proceeds from the sale of the artwork be donated, including a large portion designated for the Hero Initiative, the first-ever federally chartered not-for-profit corporation dedicated strictly to helping comic book creators in financial need.

Because the industry paid so abysmally and played fast and loose with royalties, the people who drew and wrote some of the most beloved characters of all time (not the mention all the others who never made the big time but did the hard work of rotting young minds for decades) didn’t have much to fall back on. The Hero Initiative raises funds to support comic book artists and writers with whatever they might need, from medical care to food, rent and help getting back to work.

How fitting that the sale of what is sure to be a big ticket collector’s item will directly profit the comic creators.

As Marvel Editor-In-Chief at the time, Roy Thomas came up with the original idea for the character and tells us “Because Wolverine was introduced in the final panel of the final page of Hulk #180, that has become one of the holy grail pages from any 1970s comic book. I’m overjoyed to know that it still exists — and even happier that its sale will in part benefit the comics industry’s own charity, Hero Initiative, on whose disbursement board I’ve sat since its founding. Wolverine was never a do-gooder… but this time he’s going to do some good in spite of himself. Take that, Logan!”

Bidding will open online around April 25th, 2014. Track the lot here.

On a tangentially related note, if you’re a fan of Golden Age comics, including the lusciously lurid pre-code horror and detective titles, run, don’t walk, to the Digital Comic Museum. There you will find high resolution scans of complete issues of public domain comics available for perusal online and download. (Don’t look for the big names — Marvel, DC — because none of their stuff is in the public domain.) It’s a time sink of most epic proportions and every minute nothing but sheer joy. The advertising alone is enough to bring a nostalgic tear to my eye.

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Whole egg votive found under Sardis floor

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Archaeologists excavating the ruins of Sardis, onetime capital of Lydia, home of King Croesus whose control of gold deposits in the area made his name synonymous with enormous wealth, in western Turkey have unearthed two votive deposits buried under the floor of a Roman-era home. Both votives have the same ingredient list: a coin, a group of pointed metal nail or needle-like objects and an egg, all placed inside pottery vessels which were covered and buried. One was a jug found broken into pieces, its fragile egg smashed. The other was a bowl topped with an inverted bowl to act as lid and its egg was found intact except for a hole that was deliberately poked in its shell in antiquity probably to remove the contents so the egg wouldn’t rot and make the newly renovated home it was supposed to bless smell like sulfur.

The votive pottery dates to between 54 and 68 A.D. when Sardis was part of the Roman province of Asia. A few decades before then in 17 A.D. Sardis had been nearly leveled by a massive earthquake. Pliny the Elder called it “the greatest earthquake which has occurred in our memory.” Tacitus described the extent of the devastation in Annals II: 47:

In the same year, twelve important cities of Asia collapsed in an earthquake, the time being night, so that the havoc was the less foreseen and the more devastating. Even the usual resource in these catastrophes, a rush to open ground, was unavailing, as the fugitives were swallowed up in yawning chasms. Accounts are given of huge mountains sinking, of former plains seen heaved aloft, of fires flashing out amid the ruin. As the disaster fell heaviest on the Sardians, it brought them the largest measure of sympathy, the Caesar promising ten million sesterces, and remitting for five years their payments to the national and imperial exchequers.

So Sardis was rebuilt, thanks to a significant capital investment and tax breaks from the emperor Tiberius. The scars from the earthquake never did fade, however, and the city never regained its former splendor. The house in which the votives were found was built over the ruins of a previous structure that archaeologists believe was destroyed in the earthquake of 17 A.D.. It’s possible that the homeowners had that destruction in mind when they buried the votives under their new floor to protect it from any future such ravages.

They could also have been a simple purification ritual. Burying votives in a wall or under a floor was a relatively common practice in antiquity. The Lustratio ceremony, a Greco-Roman purification ritual, was used to bless and purify buildings after new construction or renovation. Eggs were used in the Lustratio ceremony. An egg was placed on the fire and if it cracked, it was a bad portent warning the owner of danger to the property. The Sardis home shows signs of having been renovated several times.

The coin found in the bowl along with the egg and pointy metal things may also provide a clue to the ritual purpose of the votives.

“The coin has a portrait of Nero on the front. The original reverse was hammered flat, and the image of a lion engraved in its place, which is very odd.” Expert numismatists have never seen anything like it. “The image of the lion is important because it is emblematic of the Lydian kings and of their native mother goddess Cybele,” [University of Wisconsin-Madison art history professor Nicholas] Cahill says.

There are references in the ancient sources connected Cybele and eggs. In Juvenal’s Satire V, the priests of Cybele (called “Galli” which also means roosters) are presented as effective against “black hobgoblins, and dangers from a broken egg.” That danger was sorcery, mainly. Pierced or broken eggs were an indication that they had been used in spell-casting.

Cybele isn’t the only deity with a possible votive egg connection in Sardis. In 1911, Princeton University archaeologists led by Howard Crosby Butler unearthed the temple of Artemis, long since buried by landslides. They found a number of vessels holding coins, eggs and pointy metal objects, but at the time there was little interest in such quotidian items and excavations were interrupted by World War I. When Butler returned in 1922, he found most of the artifacts had been destroyed or stolen. According to notes from the 1911 excavation, the votive eggs at the temple of Artemis were also deliberately perforated in antiquity.

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Germany’s second oldest church found

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

During renovations on the Evangelical Church of Saint John in Mainz, Germany, workers have discovered remains that make it the second oldest church in Germany. They were installing a heating system under the nave when they found remains of a previous floor built in the ninth century about three meters (10 feet) below the current floor level. This earlier floor dates to the construction of the church by Archbishop on Mainz Hatto I.

Archaeologists excavated further, exploring the basement as well where they found even older structures from the 7th and 8th centuries. The remains are impressive in dimension. Walls reach as high as 10 meters (33 feet). Hatto I consecrated what was then St. Salvator, the cathedral and seat of the Bishop of Mainz, in 911, but it seems the remains of an older church were incorporated into the new construction. Hatto’s cathedral walls were built against the older ones instead of on top of it, thus allowing a very rare survival of substantial Carolingian structures.

Professor Matthias Untermann from the Institute of Art History in Heidelberg said the remains of the Carolingian walls stretched from the basement to the roof.

“This is a big surprise,” he said.

The Rhineland-Palatinate state curator Joachim Glatz said: “This is the only surviving Carolingian cathedral in Germany.”

Usually a bishop would build a cathedral in the Middle Ages at the exact location of the previous building, getting rid of the older church. But in Mainz the 1,000-year-old “Old Cathedral” was incorporated into the Carolingian one.

The surviving structure points to a church with a very different configuration from Hatto’s cathedral. According to Professor Untermann, the church had a small nave with a transept on the west side and double altars, one in the west and one in the east, an unusual feature.

Archaeologists also discovered two graves in the basement. One was a sarcophagus without a lid, the other a stone walled cyst. Both held skeletal remains. They have yet to be dated, but they area likely to be older than the 7th-8th century walls. There are no inscriptions or grave goods pointing to the identity of the deceased, but they were probably people of importance, secular leaders or high clerics. The style of the sarcophagus indicates it was made in the early Middle Ages. That doesn’t testify to the age of the burial, however, because it could have been reused multiple times since it was first crafted.

If the dating of the walls and graves is confirmed as Carolingian or older, that will make St. John’s the second oldest church in Germany. Only the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Trier can claim greater age, thanks to its central chapel which was built at the direction of Saint Helena, emperor Constantine’s mother, in the 4th century.

Excavations are ongoing. At some point the church is going to back to full service — right now its parishioners are using the city hall and other local churches — but St. John’s leaders are very excited about the finds and once the digging is done, want to find a way to integrate the archaeological remains with the current church and make them visible to the public. They are also beginning the process of having the church declared a national heritage site.

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Another wall collapses in Pompeii

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Heavy rainfall has claimed new victims among the ruins of Pompeii: two more walls have come down.

Officials said the wall of a tomb about 1.7 metres high and 3.5 metres long collapsed in the necropolis of Porta Nocera in the early hours of Sunday.

That followed a smaller collapse on Saturday of part of an arch supporting the Temple of Venus. […]

The Temple of Venus is in an area of the site which was already closed to visitors, while access to the necropolis has been closed following the collapse of the wall.

Heavy rains and continued neglect inflicted the coup de grace on a whole gladiator school and took down multiple walls in 2010. There much indignant harumphing about it, but not a lot of necessary maintenance to keep the deterioration at bay. In 2011, the European Union pledged $145 million to the conservation of Pompeii, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the then-Culture Minister, Giancarlo Galan, asserted that Pompeii would be a priority for his tenure.

Two years later, after a damning UNESCO report identified the extensive structural damage, vandalism and unqualified employees plaguing the ancient site, Italy launched the Great Pompeii rescue project, a plan to restore the entire site using the UNESCO report as an action plan and the EU’s $145 million in funding. Great Pompeii also has a goal of increasing visitor numbers by 300,000 a year by 2017, however, which seems counterproductive given the danger posed by crowds.

Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.

Meanwhile, a cooperative group of German and Italian institutions has launched the Pompeii Sustainable Preservation project (PSP) which plans to spend €10 million ($13,781,000) over ten years restoring major structures in need of attention and training the experts of tomorrow.

Now that there’s a new government in Rome, there’s also a new Culture Minister. Dario Franceschini was appointed last month by the new prime minister Matteo Renzi. In response to the latest collapse, he has called an emergency meeting of heritage officials on Tuesday. He will hear a report on the collapses and on the progress of the Great Pompeii project. The trick is going to be continuing oversight, since basically every since culture minister has done the same thing every time Pompeii exposed them by falling a little more apart.

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